March 26, 2004

The Scourge Of Journalistic Laziness

I'm not a grizzled veteran when it comes to journalism. I've basically been in the field now for six years or so, which isn't a whole lot, when you think about it. Regardless, there is one rule I've noticed when it comes to modern day journalists.

We are fucking LAZY.

This doesn't apply to all journalists, mind you, just the vast majority. There is a miniscule minority of journalists out there who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and do a little background research and put together a tightly knit story, complete with facts and figures and interviews and excerpts from other sources.

But, generally, journalists aren't interested in doing all that work. Journalists invest far more time and ingenuity into discovering ways to avoid hard investigative work than they do actually working. I can speak with a little bit of authority on this, because I've been known to do it from time to time, and I can recognize the familiar handiwork of journalistic reporters taking the easy road. If you know what to look for, it's really quite obvious.

Take, for example, James Lileks' Bleat today. Now, I don't typically disagree wholeheartedly with Lileks, but I think in this case he's kind of missing the point. Basically, Lileks is wondering why the big media engine is putting so much faith into everything that spews forth from Richard Clarke's mouth.

Oh, by the way, unless you've been living under a rock, in a cave, on Mars, with the stereo blaring heavy metal, you probably have heard of Richard Clarke. He's a former Bush administration counterterrorism guru, who the administration asked to step down and who recently published a book condemning the Bush White House for failing to sufficiently go after Al Queda and instead focusing on Saddam and Iraq.

The problem is, if you do even a little bit of research, you find out that Clarke is just dripping with credibility problems, because, in 2002, he was basically saying the exact opposite of everything he's saying today.

Lileks is wondering why the major media outlets aren't stressing Clarke's total and complete flip-flop on this.

I read a wire-story compilation today about the Clarke appearance - it gave no details of the background briefing tape. Let me quote:

"The charged political climate enveloped the commission as well. Key Democrats and Republicans on the panel dropped the neutral posture that had shown in previous hearings and were openly partisan in questioning Clarke and three witnesses."

Okay, keep that in mind. Dems and Repubs were openly partisan. We continue:

"Three GOP members of the group, for example, grilled Clare on his motivations, suggestion that he had been contradictory in his statements and dishonest about his misgivings about counterrorism policies."

This would be a reference to the background briefing and another appearance Clarke made. No specifics about the details of those conversations are given.

You see, Lileks is holding this up as media bias, and I just don't think it is. I see it as a classic case of media laziness. Really, it's no big chore to FIND pretty damning proof of Clarke's shameless waffling, but it's still a chore, even if it is just a tiny one, and that's just too damned much to ask of a reporter who wants to file their story and get to the local Starbucks and enjoy the rest of the day.

Seriously, if you look at the rest of the story Lileks is examining, you eventually see a familiar pattern:

"Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican, took up the president?s cause inside the commission hearing. 'We have your book and we have your press briefing of August 2002. Which is true?' he challenged the witness."

"Former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, a Democratic commission member, asked Clarke whether Rice's recent statement that the Bush plan called for military options to attack Al-Qaida and Taliban leadership, ground forces and other targets, taking the fight to the enemy where he lived? was accurate."

"Clarke responded, 'No, it's not.'"

Did you catch what's going on here? No? Let me explain it from my view, and again keep in mind that I'm adept at sniffing out journalistic laziness.

If you look at it, you see that the reporter is basically just transcribing the hearings. There's no research going on here. There's no journalistic detective work taking place. The reporter just put their tape recorder on "Record" and sat back for a cat nap, and then transcribed the tape later, threw in some descriptive sounding items like "challenged the witness," slapped their byline on the story, and sold it as news. It's nice and easy and, shit, given the software out there today that can automate the process of putting the spoken word into text, the whole article probably took a massive hour or so to "write," thus freeing up the reporter's day for more important things, like a four martini lunch or something.

I think journalists all basically know, at least somewhere tucked in their brain, that Clarke at one time said totally contradictory things like:

The Clinton administration had a strategy in place, effectively dating from 1998. And there were a number of issues on the table since 1998. And they remained on the table when that administration went out of office ? issues like aiding the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, changing our Pakistan policy -- uh, changing our policy toward Uzbekistan. And in January 2001, the incoming Bush administration was briefed on the existing strategy. They were also briefed on these series of issues that had not been decided on in a couple of years.

And the third point is the Bush administration decided then, you know, in late January, to do two things. One, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert action findings, which we've now made public to some extent.

But, see, to your typical lazy reporter, that's old news. And, what's more, it's old news that never really got much attention when it originally aired, so it's not really news at all. Besides, we're talking 2002. That's soooooo, like, almost two years ago. Reporters, by and large, aren't historians, so stuff in the 2002 archives may as well be ancient history to them. It just doesn't seem relevant. When a reporter is sent out to cover something like a hearing, that's what they do. That's ALL they do. And, while they're driving to wherever the hearing is being held, they're thinking up all sorts of ways to make their assignment even easier to accomplish.

And, additionally, factoring in contradictory information into an article is just really hard, and reporters just don't like "hard." Hard means longer office hours, and that's just not fun.

Therefore, a man like Richard Clarke, who should, by most reasonable accounts, right now be having his credibility questioned more intensely than than an O.J. interrogation is simply given a pass by the media.

It's just EASIER that way.

UPDATE: Oh, and there's this, too.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Holy OUCH! (via Helloooo Chapter Two)

Posted by Ryan at March 26, 2004 11:07 AM
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